GED test centers across the region brace for a surge of test-takers as the new year approaches.
By RON COLE
VINDICATOR EDUCATION WRITER
WARREN -- Mitchell Steen was a fresh-faced ninth-grader in his hometown of Greer, S.C., when his friends started dropping out of school.
Two left in their freshman years, two more in 10th grade.
So, late in his sophomore year, Steen also dropped out.
"I played follow the leader," he said.
Five years later, now living in Warren with a pregnant fianc & eacute;e, Steen holds a job at a local convenience store, making $5.59 an hour.
"Everything is so much harder out here in the real world," said Steen, 22. "And it's even harder without a high school diploma."
Back to studying: Steen is one of dozens of people in the Mahoning and Shenango valleys, and hundreds of thousands nationwide, studying this summer to get a high school equivalency certificate, commonly known as a GED.
Many of them are in a race against the clock.
The five-part GED test undergoes major changes Jan. 1. Those not passing all sections by Dec. 31 will lose all their points and have to start all over again.
Many test centers across Ohio and Pennsylvania already report an influx of test-takers trying to pass before the first-of-the-year changes, and the surge is expected to get even greater.
Local testing: Choffin Career and Technical Center in Youngstown tests 300 to 400 people a year on average; the center has tested close to 300 already this year. Choffin averages about 30 test-takers a month; in June, 58 people took the test.
"I expect that to continue and grow all of the way to January," said Denise Vaclav-Danko, director of Youngstown's Adult Basic Literacy and Education program, which helps prepare people to take the GED exam.
In Trumbull County, the number of people enrolled in GED preparation classes is up about 40 percent this summer, said Beth Trace, literacy director for the Warren ABLE program.
At the Lawrence County Area Vocational and Technical School in New Castle, Pa., officials are considering doubling the number of GED test dates in November and December to handle the expected demand.
"It's kind of like everything else: as the time gets closer, people will become more aware of the deadline and decide to do something about it," said Tom Wildauer, school director.
The American Council on Education, which oversees the GED exam, expects a record number of nearly 900,000 test-takers this year nationwide.
The test, created in 1942 for military veterans who left for war without getting a high school diploma, was revised in 1978 and 1988, said Lyn Schaefer, the council's director of test development.
Higher standards: The 2002 revision is in response to increased high school academic standards implemented by state legislators nationwide.
"They're basically changing what they expect high school seniors to demonstrate before they graduate," Schaefer said. "We have to mirror that in our test."
That doesn't mean the exam will be more difficult, Schaefer said. The major changes are in appearance and administration, she said.
For instance, students will be allowed to use calculators on the math section. Questions in the science, social studies and math sections will include more graphics.
"It will be very different looking, but the same difficulty," Schaefer said.
Scores that students achieve before 2002 will not be carried over and applied to the new test, Schaefer said. So if a person passed four of the five sections before 2002, those four passing grades will not be carried over into 2002. The person would be required to pass all five sections of the new test.
"It's possible right now to have passed science in 1945, math in 1965 and social studies in 1975 and come back and finish the last two tests in 2001," Schaefer said.
"I think we have to recognize that the curriculum has changed in the last 50 years to where it is not appropriate to allow scores to carry over for decades and decades."
Campaign effort: The Ohio Department of Education is in the midst of a yearlong campaign to get people to take the test by the end of the year, and the state is helping by making the test affordable.
Before July 1, people who completed a practice test could take the GED one time for free, rather than paying $42. Under the new state budget, students can take the test three times free of charge.
"If you have passed all but one section of the test, certainly there is a major need to get in and get ready and pass that final section" before Jan. 1, said Charlotte Guest, director of adult education at the Mahoning County Career and Technical Center.
Guest said she does not expect a great influx of test-takers. "I don't think the perception is there that [getting a GED] makes much difference in the job market," she said.
Still hoping: Paul Stewart, 46, of Liberty said he hopes it does.
Stewart, who has been driving a truck for more than 20 years, is studying for the GED at Trumbull County's ABLE program in the Salvation Army in Warren.
He dropped out of high school in Indiana in the 11th grade. "It was a wrong move, but it was a move I chose, and now I'm paying for it," he said.
Stewart had heart surgery in June and is taking the time during his recovery to study for the GED test.
"I've always wanted to do it, but I never had the time," he said.
Maria Ritter, 48, of Warren, dropped out of high school in San Antonio, Texas, three months before she was supposed to graduate. She got married and moved to Warren instead.
After working 17 years as a beautician, Ritter wants her GED so she can go to college. She has been attending free GED classes in Warren since January and plans to take the exam in August.